Are you thinking, or are you farting?

Thinking is supposed to be a question mark. But most people treat it like a period.

Headology vs First Sight, Second Thoughts

Terry Pratchett’s always written about witches and, by extension, the essence of humanity.

But his Wee Free Men trilogy is the best yet, and the most true to life. He names the fundamentals that separate a fearsome, clever, Headology-wielding, seldom-magic-using witch from a superstitious, ignorant normal person: “First Sight and Second Thoughts.”

First Sight is the ability to see what’s really there. Most people see things that aren’t there, or miss things that are. This sounds cheesy and trite, but remember the teachings of the basketball video.

Second Thoughts are thinking about your thinking. Most people are too busy thinking their thoughts to ask why they are thinking those thoughts. But it’s necessary to keep your lying brain in check. (Second Thoughts is a much better name for metacognition.)

By gutter

Real-world Example

I had a Second Thought the other day, myself:

Thought 1: This milk is so delicious! So rich and tasty.

Thought 2: I’m glad I can still enjoy these little things about Austria even though I’ve lived here a while now.

Thought 3: Wait a second. That sounded awfully self-congratulatory. Is that a genuine thought or am I trying to convince myself of something?

Thought 4: This is a perfect example of that Terry Pratchett thing, and design, I should write about it.

Who thinks the thinkers?

Second Thought is one of the true cornerstones of design, hacking… and everything else in life.

First you have to observe what you’re thinking. Then you have to think about it. And then you have to think about your thinking about your thinking.

I think you have to think at least 4 levels deep before you get anywhere interesting.

Most people only think to the first level—in design, but of course, not only in design.

Maybe this is what they mean by “brainfarts”

The problem is that first thoughts are like babies farting. A baby farts, and it grins. Babies love to fart. For them, it’s one of life’s greatest pleasures.

First thoughts are exactly the same. They feel good, so we like them… and because we like them, we assume that they are good. More importantly, we assume that they are accurate.

This is a logical fallacy called post hoc ergo propter hoc. “After this, therefore resulting from this.” But I prefer to call it farting.

Ohhh, that was a good one! By jolien_valens

It sums up the biggest conceit of humanity. We believe what we think. We trust our own subjective experience to be the real thing—that our feelings are genuine, that our thoughts are unique, that if we believe something, it must be true.

That’s because the only subjective experience we can have is our own. We can’t take a trip to the brains of others, and come back changed, because we learn that Susie thinks Susie is exactly as right as we think ourselves to be.

Even if we could, our experience of Bob’s self-absorption might just confirm to us that Bob is a ditz, unlike our superior self in every way.

We’re farting, and we’re showing off our pearly whites.

Except that most of us grow up and learn that, no matter how much we want to revel in letting one rip, it’s impolite. All those other self-absorbed brains around us would think we were strange and undersocialized… even if they were wishing the most fervent wishes to run around tooting and laughing in public. It’s Just Not Done.

There’s no such ingrained social prohibition against believing our first thoughts.

In user interface… let’s think about forums

Here’s a hypothetical but realistic example from design and/or development. Let’s call the thinker Alice:

Thought 1: I want to make a forum. Here’s how I will make the front page that lists all the forums, making it clean and easy to see the most popular stuff, even if it’s older…

Thought 2: But wait. Do I need a front page that lists all the forums? Am I optimizing instead of thinking?

Thought 3: Are forums really the right tool for the job?

Thought 4: How would I recognize the right tool for the job? What does communication mean? How does this change on the internet?

Now, don’t get me wrong, a forum resulting from Thought 1 could still be pretty great. I would welcome a new commercial or open source forum that was as good as Thought 1. I haven’t found one.

But in Thought 2, things start to get interesting. Alice wonders if the front page design she’s planning is necessary, or if there’s a better way. She questions the ready made template in her head named Forum. She moves beyond thinking minor tweaks and goes to major overhaul.

She’s holding in those joyous, brainless farts.

In Thought 3, Alice then takes the giant leap from “Is the front page necessary?” to “Is the forum necessary?”—that’s what most people call design thinking. It’s Exploring The Problem Area, etc., etc.

Even most of the best people stop at Thought 3. But I still maintain that 4 levels is necessary for things to get interesting.

In Thought 4, Alice asks the ultimate question: How could I even recognize the answer to Thoughts 2 and 3? How can I know if I know? How can I find out?

This is where breakthroughs happen.

How can I metacognate up some Second Thoughts?

You ever hear some manager, teacher, or inspirational speaker say “Catch somebody doing something right”? It’s a nauseating phrase, but the intent is a good one: pay attention to people when they do things right, not just when things go wrong.

That’s the way you have to treat your discoursive thoughts.

Most people only pay attention to their thinking when something goes really wrong, for example racing thoughts, insomnia, that awful Internal Critic who spends all day telling you what a shithead you are.

Almost nobody pays attention to their thinking when their thinking is benign.

But that’s the trick.

The best way to pay attention is to learn to insert yourself into your discursive (gabby) thoughts, when you’re thinking them. If you can’t get in where the action is, you can’t observe it, and you definitely can’t second-think it. It’s hard at first, but totally do-able. But you have to practice.

You can start by just sitting for 5 to 10 minutes, sitting in a comfy chair, looking at a blank wall, and just… breathing. When you catch yourself thinking a thought, say to yourself (inside your head) “Thinking” and imagine it dissolving, like a bubble.

This trains you to be aware, not only of how many thoughts there are in your head at a given time (hint: a shit ton), but what they are. Turning your attention to them means you can then analyze them.

It’s not a game, there’s no high score, you don’t need to get your head completely clear and you don’t win anything for not having any thoughts at all. Don’t even try to insert critical thinking about your thinking into the equation at this point. That’s for later.

The whole point of the exercise is to notice. That’s it.

Little bouncy thoughts. By ravages

You can read more on this habit in any number of books and blog posts—just look for anything about mindfulness. Pick the ones you like best.

Then what?

Paying attention to your thoughts helps you be a better person, helps you be a better designer / developer / whatever-you-doer, helps you be a better person, helps you pay more attention to your thoughts.

Second, Third and Fourth Thoughts don’t make you smarter. They uncover the farty layers of disuse that are keeping you from the smartness you already have.

Thinking about your thinking about your thinking doesn’t create world peace, but it does create better work, and better people. And better people create better work. And better people also create more better people, at least in theory.

It’s a cycle of awesomeness.

Try it out

Try the exercise a few times when you’re not trying to do anything. (Don’t just do something, sit there!—those Zen Buddhists are more fun than a barrel of seamonkeys.)

Then, next time you have to tackle a worthy problem, try it while you’re working.

Sit down and ask yourself “What is my First Thought?”

Then think about it.

Then ask yourself “If that’s my Second Thought, what do I think about that?”

And so on.

Find out how deep the rabbit hole goes. And keep me posted.

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  1. Erik Kastner says:

    this reminds me of the "5 whys":

    My whole life, the meta-thoughts have been external: * Look at that person. I wonder what they’re thinking * I wonder if they’re wondering what I’m thinking * I wonder if they wonder if we’re both thinking that we’re both wondering……..

    rabbit hole indeed.

  2. This is a great post about design process, and in fact this is probably a trait that helped me become a competent designer even though I’m not really that visually talented.

    I will say though that there are two sides to every coin, and second thoughts can go to far and cause adverse effects in certain aspects of life. 3 professions I think it could really be adverse would be in sales, acting, or any kind of sports. Self awareness and evaluation is of course just a mental tool, the trick is knowing when to apply it (and when not to, if you’re predisposed like me).

  3. Nick says:

    I’m 48 and farting still brings me a lot of joy and laughter… :o)

  4. mendicant says:

    I tried this, but at level 5 my brain hit a stack overflow and I had to perform a manual reboot.

    I guess the first paragraph was included in order to try and be funny.

    But do you even find the same things funny that I do? I know that I have a weird sense of humour.

    Why do humans even find things funny? It’s really quite absurd that abstract thoughts can cause us such joy.

    How did humans even….

    An unhandled exception of type ‘System.StackOverflowException’ occurred in mendicants_thoughts.exe

  5. Morgan says:

    Greetings, I’m not sure we need a cool new phrase ‘Second Thought’ for this… Perhaps the word ‘introspection’ would work?

    I once told a friend while he was driving, ‘Sometimes I wonder if I’m too introspective.’ He nearly drove the car into a ditch. 🙂

    — Morgan

  6. sensei says:

    Hi there. Your post is interesting, and what you’re saying is true, but I feel you’ve entirely gone up the wrong path. Generally humans tend towards thinking far too much. One simply can’t observe thoughts from thought. Thought always comes after itself because there’s only one thinker. It really isn’t very intelligent. Thought involves time.

    Some of the best stuff we do comes when thought gets either integrated into "the whole" of ourselves (ie feelings & body as well) or gets "flipped out" temporarily… that is to say, the part that "thinks" simply stops for some reason or other. This is the goal of meditation – to do either of these things. To get thought to "play properly" so to speak… the "thinker" needs to simply be attentive, and allow all the other parts of oneself to come into play and function in harmony.

    When thought does this, intelligence comes into play. This is what you’re hinting at, but it seems you’re hunting in the dark for it. You don’t express it very well.

    I fully agree that most people tend towards simply bouncing out the first thing that occurs to them, without contemplating and holding the question of what they are interested in for a reasonable time and arriving at something considered, though.

    These levels of thought don’t come from more thinking… they come from thinking where there is more than just the "thinker" acting within oneself – more than just the mind… when the mind, the body and the emotions all get in on the act, THEN something really interesting is arrived at.

  7. Erik says:


  8. Matt J. says:

    Thank you for the foray into a folk epistemology of sorts. Loved it!

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